I didn’t know before I read this week’s New Title Tuesday recommendation, Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin, that it would be such a suitable and meaningful read. Naturally I expected a book by the three-time National Book Award nominee with five novels on the New York Times bestseller list would be better than average, but the timing of this read was serendipitous.
Publisher’s Summary: After his mother’s death, eleven-year-old Marcus is sent to live on a small South Carolina island with his great aunt, a reclusive painter with a haunted past. Aunt Charlotte, otherwise a woman of few words, points out a ruined cottage, telling Marcus she had visited it regularly after she’d moved there thirty years ago because it matched the ruin of her own life. Eventually she was inspired to take up painting so she could capture its utter desolation. The islanders call it “Grief Cottage,” because a boy and his parents disappeared from it during a hurricane fifty years before. Their bodies were never found and the cottage has stood empty ever since. During his lonely hours while Aunt Charlotte is in her studio painting and keeping her demons at bay, Marcus visits the cottage daily, building up his courage by coming ever closer, even after the ghost of the boy who died seems to reveal himself. Full of curiosity and open to the unfamiliar and uncanny given the recent upending of his life, he courts the ghost boy, never certain whether the ghost is friendly or follows some sinister agenda.
First, Godwin is an artist of plot. In Grief Cottage she selects some of the usual ingredients – an orphan, a curmudgeonly distant relative to serve as guardian, and, well, a ghost. Instead of a flimsy retread though, Godwin writes a beautiful story that is both a psychological page-turner as well as a hopeful tale.
It’s obvious Godwin loves the ocean and her description of an island off the coast of South Carolina provides intimate knowledge and appreciation for the life that teems under the sand. The fragile turtle eggs that had been laid there become a steadying force for the boy, Marcus, who has barely had an opportunity to grieve or acclimate to his new home. He stands watch and protects the clutch under the boardwalk by his aunt’s house from being disturbed. These rituals provide structure and purpose as well as hope of seeing the baby turtles hatch and scramble toward the sea.
It is a long-term friend of his Aunt Charlotte, Lachicotte Hayes, who provides additional tethering for the fragile Marcus who admits that “…it still feels weird to realize my mom is dead.I’m not sure I can explain it, but often it seems like she’s more alive than ever. I think about her more than ever and I keep seeing new sides of her. Lachicotte replies, “You explain it perfectly well. After all the human noise and conflicts have stopped, the absent person has more room in your heart to spread out and be herself. My mother’s been gone ten years and I know her much better now than when we saw each other every day.”
While grief is always a personal experience, it is some comfort to know that the feelings of abandonment, sorrow and mental anguish, and guilt for what was done or not done, are not unique and are painfully survivable.
“Godwin may flirt with the magical, but she deals firmly with the realism of depression and loss. It’s those psychological ghosts that Grief Cottage is really about,” wrote Carole Burns in her Washington Post review., “…Marcus’s story remains beguiling, with its array of Southern characters, each living in a cottage of grief with their own ghosts and their own ways of finding a way forward.”
Happy reading, Susan C.
Also by Godwin:
Flora – Ten-year-old Helen and her summer guardian, Flora, are isolated together in Helen’s decaying family house while her father is doing secret war work in Oak Ridge during the final months of World War II. Their relationship and its fallout, played against a backdrop of a lost America will haunt Helen for the rest of her life.
Unfinished Desires – Sparking enthusiasm for a play about the founding of their North Carolina mountains Catholic girls’ school, a charismatic ninth grader and her recently orphaned best friend set in motion a series of events that have decades-long ramifications.
Evensong –An Anglican priestess in North Carolina finds her role threatened by a fiery evangelist, also a woman. It happens in a town in the Smoky Mountains where Margaret Bonner runs an Episcopal ministry. The area is plagued by social unrest and fundamentalist preacher Grace Munger is muscling in, claiming her brand of religion will bring hope. By the author of Father Melancholy’s Daughter.
The Good Husband – “Mates are not always matches, and matches are not always mates, ” pronounces Magda Danvers, the magnificent central figure in Gail Godwin’s wise and affecting new novel. With The Good Husband, one of America’s most gifted novelists creates a portrait of two marriages and four unforgettable characters that travels beyond the usual questions of love and domestic comfort to explore the most profound consequences of intimate relationships. It is also, in its deepest sense, a novel about how we influence and transform – and sometimes complete – one another.